A World Full of Gods began within a research project including five religious scholars of differing backgrounds, and Hopkins tells us that as a finished product, is still an experiment in how to write religious history. Since historical analysis is always tempered by, or refracted through modernity, perhaps inspired by his experiences Hopkins forefronts the "voices" in his work. He shifts between straight analysis, storytelling, and letters from critical colleagues. It is a creative and interesting endeavor, but perhaps not ultimately satisfying on the subject of Christianity's triumph.
He begins with two imaginary time travelers, James and Martha, who report on Roman religion. They are intrigued, puzzled, titillated and shocked at the pervasive "inappropriate" bawdiness of Roman culture and practice. Chapter Two changes scenes and offers a recapping of the Qumran community through the vehicle of a TV show. An old one-time Essene is interviewed and compared (via time slippages in the show) to modern fringe Christian fundamentalists. Chapter Three, by contrast, is in the recognizable scholarly tradition, and comes, after the lively storytelling of Chapters One and Two, as a bit of a let-down. Hopkins recounts how Christianity, across four centuries, became tradition-bound, hierarchical, in part because of persecution and martyrdom. Many voices became one orthodox voice. In Chapter Four Hopkins centers on some of the non-orthodox stories that were eventually excluded from canon (among them Thomas the Twin). In a comparison of sources, he offers his own understanding of the "purpose" of religion and the triumph of Christianity:
[a]ll of them [canon and non-canon] were proposing ethical and metaphysical solutions to core human problems. None of them was purposively telling what we would now call true histories.... Christian sacred writings, canonical and apocryphal, offered a magical mixture of transcendentalism, hope and history. It proved to be a winner. (175)Then, according to Hopkins, Christianity's blend of historicity and mythology was just the combination needed by a growing empire.
In the second half of the book, Martha and James go on to Egypt, Syria and Turkey, visit the crocodiles, indulge in an uncomfortable bit of love-potion making, and just barely escape local justice. In a somewhat jolting switch, Hopkins cuts to an Hellenistic dinner party as retold by Macarius, a new Christian who feels he and his beliefs have come off somewhat the worse for the vigorous dinner conversation. (For good measure Hopkins ends with a ghost/demon story). In Hopkin's gloss on this section, he advances what I suppose are his own religious beliefs.
I, too, take it for granted that humans created their own God(s) -- perhaps in part an idealized projection of themselves or of their parents. The Christian Godhead, comprising God the Father, Christ as the potent but obedient Son, the Holy Spirit (she is female in Aramaic and Syriac), and eventually Mary, the sanctified but asexual and shadowy mother, was in some sense, however strange, an idealized projection of the ancient family. (244)Hopkins embeds these ideas within a relatively straightforward presentation of Manichean beliefs. Surfacing through this retelling is his own love of storytelling and of contradictory orthodoxy.
The most troubling of the book's "experimental" features comes at the end of his compressed dialogue between Manichean preacher Faust and the former Manichean, Augustine. He completes the exchange, adds a bit of history, and then offers a fictional "deathbed confession" for Augustine which is footnoted but otherwise unmarked as fictional. Not an Augustine scholar, I had to check the notes to be sure I was reading a creation, and not a retelling of history. Its so-smooth insertion sails awfully close to the winds of "I wish things were this way." Chapter Eight closes the book with a comparison between the gospels as "charter myth" for Christianity, a discussion of potential sources and production times for the gospels, and an explication of the development of thought, belief and canon across the first two centuries.
Does Hopkins really explain why Christianity triumphed? He attributes
its strength to its historical/mythological porosity occurring at a time
when the Roman empire "needed" such a religion. Even if he's right
about the fit between Christian orthdoxy and the Roman political situation,
the "need" and "solution" can only be seen after the fact. And by this
accounting, he has to do more than simply compare Christianity with other
religious beliefs which can be fixed via their founders in history,
and which have mythological or at least extraordinary founding stories.
They faded away, and Christianity obtained. Why did Christians
focus on creating an orthodoxy? Why were Gnostic gospels rejected?
Why did Manichean missionaries not continue their work? Why did Osiris/Isis
make for a less than universal pairing? Lurking underneath his account
is the impression (perhaps it is just mine) that Gnosticism, or Manicheanism,
was the religion for creative intellectuals, while Christianity was the
religion for sycophantic bureaucrats. (Of course Manicheanism didn't
get up much steam. Since when have intellectuals and dreamer-academic
types ever been able to organize?) I don't think Hopkins adequately
addresses the factors that create Christian exceptionalism.
His historical proportions and perspectives are just what I, as a reader,
mistrust, and just what he, as a scholar, claims to be unable to reproduce.
He remarks, in passing, that it doesn't really matter whether the gospels
are an early or late production -- because religion is not historical anyway.
This point, at least, the writer or writers of the gospels might take issue
with. Hopkins, as I've remarked before, is like a man describing
a combustion engine who doesn't believe in gas. He's unable to evaluate
Christian claims on a historical level because he doesn't truly believe
in history. Which is all very well, as long as he sticks to mythology.