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cult of the dead

22 june 2023

Cult of the Dead sounds like a facetious title for a history of Christianity, but as Kyle Smith uses it, it's matter-of-fact. Christianity is not only centered on the death – and of course, resurrection – of its God, but encourages emulation of that death in the hope of a general resurrection.

To that effect, Christians have invested a huge amount of intellectual and narrative effort in preserving the names and stories of martyrs. The history of the Church is a litany of dying. And, Smith explains, placid, cheerful, even actively suicidal dying. As I was reading Cult of the Dead I happened also to be reading Montaigne's essay on how "Feeling that things are good and evil depends in large part on the opinion we hold of them," which muses on welcoming death. "Nulle sorte de religion n'est incapable," Montaigne says, no religious tradition fails to provide examples, of actively courting death rather than yielding on the smallest points of ritual or conscience. Everyone's proud of being persecuted. We speak in pop-psychological terms of people having persecution or martyr "complexes" and not usually approvingly. Yet world religions, and notably Christianity, center their entire worldview on willing sacrifice to oppressive Others.

Nobody likes a persecutor, mind you, but without them, there wouldn't be many chances to die in the odor of sanctity. Though commemoration of gruesome death does not exhaust the Christian fascination with martyrdom. Smith also discusses relics, which link their possessors physically to this long-ago trauma. He discusses anchorites and other self-tormentors who, lacking nearby persecutors, have to inflict their suffering on themselves. He has a chapter on miracles associated with the persons, the relics, or simply the places that are associated with sainted martyrs like Thomas à Becket.

Smith positions himself in the line of meta-hagiographers that descends from Eusebius and Sozomen in late antiquity through Usuard (a Carolingian researcher who contributed greatly to the sorting of saints' celebrations into the Catholic calendar) to Héribert Rosweyde and Jean Bolland of the Counter-Reformation, who began to look more critically at the mountain of legend accreted over a millennium and a half, down to the 20th-century rationalist Hippolyte Delehaye. (And yes, aside from Eusebius and Bolland who were barely more than names to me, I learned about all those scholars via Smith's book.)

Smith strings eras, themes, and saints' lives together as he marches through Christian history. Though he covers little after the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholic Church put canonization on a peer-reviewed basis, the spontaneous cults of martyrs stopped arising so readily, and the energy drained from some older venerations.

Though admiration for new saints has never disappeared. The Catholic church down the street from me is named for St. Maria Goretti. In 1902, when she was eleven, a man named Alessandro Serenelli stabbed Maria Goretti to death while trying to rape her. Because she resisted at the cost of her life, Maria is a saint, virgin and martyr – though her special saintliness consists in her immediately forgiving her attacker and praying for him.

It's actually a very interesting story about attitudes toward criminals. Alessandro Serenelli was young, mentally disturbed, and as so often in such cases, had himself been the victim of abuse. Inspired by Maria's forgiveness, Alessandro devoted his life to piety. This is not some sort of saccharine legend; Alessandro lived till 1970 and his example is well within living memory.

But what's also clearly present in the Maria Goretti story is the fixation that Smith notes in hagiography on female sexuality, chastity, and not a little of what, in a different context, one would call torture porn. Reflection on the extreme and often sexualized suffering of female martyrs has been a heady ingredient of many a saint's life. Smith recounts several stories of redeemed whores, relapsing whores, women striving for sanctity at the cost of the Church's insistence that they deny their bodily natures.

If Maria Goretti had yielded to Alessandro, she would have suffered, but she would hopefully have recovered and lived till 1970 herself. Her initial saintly act was to decide that being the victim of a crime was enough to damn her, if it was a sexual crime. Preferring death to dishonor confirmed her sanctity.

All of which is only to say that cults of the saints are things of the not-so-distant past. And indeed, Maria's canonization depended on the attestation of miracles which continue to stem from her theorized intercession: that concept is not extinct in Catholic thought.

Veneration of martyrs did not persist long as a formal cult in Protestantism. Martin Luther cast scorn on the whole martyr/relic/pilgrimage industry. Though during a transitional stage, Protestant martyrs were important figures. Smith has a long chapter on John Foxe's Actes and Monuments, the "Book of Martyrs" that helped cement the position of the Church of England by memorializing the Catholic tyranny of Bloody Mary.

Of course, some American evangelicals have been known to get a little martyrish at the prospect of someone wishing them "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas." The persecution impulse, however attenuated, seems to survive even in contemporary Protestantism.

I guess the subtitle is "A brief history of Christianity," so I should not have been expecting all martyrs all the time; but here and there, an excursus of Smith's gets digressive, as in long sections on the technical history of the Western calendar, or the printing press, or the epidemiology of the Black Death. No matter: Cult of the Dead is a fine, informative, and oddly entertaining book that captures some of the specificity and contradiction of Western religion.

Smith, Kyle. Cult of the Dead: A brief history of Christianity. Oakland: University of California Press, 2022. BX 2333 .S65