Martyrdom and Memory

Martyrdom and Memory: Early Christian Culture Making

Elizabeth A. Castelli
Copyright Date: 2004
Pages: 360
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Martyrdom and Memory
    Book Description:

    Martyrs are produced, Elizabeth Castelli suggests, not by the lived experience of particular historical individuals but by the stories that are later told about them. And the formulaic character of stories about past suffering paradoxically serves specific theological, cultural, or political ends in the present. Martyrdom and Memory explores the central role of persecution in the early development of Christian ideas, institutions, and cultural forms and shows how the legacy of Christian martyrdom plays out in today's world.

    In the pre-Constantinian imperial period, the conflict between Roman imperial powers and the subject Christian population hinged on competing interpretations of power, submission, resistance, and victory. This book highlights how both Roman and Christian notions of law and piety deployed the same forms of censure and critique, each accusing the other of deviations from governing conventions of gender, reason, and religion. Using Maurice Halbwachs's theoretical framework of collective memory and a wide range of Christian sources -- autobiographical writings, martyrologies and saints'lives, sermons, art objects, pilgrimage souvenirs, and polemics about spectacle -- Castelli shows that the writings of early Christians aimed to create public and ideologically potent accounts of martyrdom. The martyr's story becomes a "usable past" and a "living tradition" for Christian communities and an especially effective vehicle for transmitting ideas about gender, power, and sanctity.

    An unlikely legacy of early Christian martyrdom is the emergence of modern "martyr cults" in the wake of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School. Focusing specifically on the martyr cult associated with one of the victims, Martyrdom and Memory argues that the Columbine story dramatically expresses the ongoing power of collective memory constructed around a process of rendering tragic suffering redemptive and meaningful. In the wake of Columbine and other contemporary legacies of martyrdom's ethical ambivalence, the global impact of Christian culture making in the early twenty-first century cannot be ignored. For as the last century's secularist hypothesis sits in the wings, "religion" returns to center stage with one of this drama's most contentious yet riveting stars: the martyr.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-50344-0
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    (pp. xv-xx)
    (pp. 1-9)

    “Who’s your saint?” we asked each other as we settled into our desks—more expectantly and conspiratorially, “What happened to her?”

    The scene was a catechism class in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the early 1970s. I was twelve years old. The exchange took place within a circle of anxious girls preparing to be initiated into spiritual adulthood in the Roman Catholic Church through the sacrament of confirmation. As a part of this process, we had collectively studied a compendium of the church’s teachings, and we had each passed an examination to demonstrate our mastery of this catechetical material. In the...

    (pp. 10-32)

    What does it mean for a group to constitute its identity through the memory of past suffering? How is that memory constructed, refined, and maintained over time? What are the dynamics of authority and authenticity that govern this memory work? What is the relationship between the knowledge built upon collective memory and historical knowledge? What modes of interpretation and meaning construction are at work in these different ways of thinking about and reconstructing the past? Is it incidental that collective memory seems often to be particularly focused on the experience of violence, a meaning-shattering occurrence?¹ These are some of the...

    (pp. 33-68)

    Willing and self-sacrificing death on behalf of one’s religion, one’s political ideals, or one’s community—martyrdom—is hardwired into the collective consciousness of Western culture and is one of the central legacies of the Christian tradition.¹ The ideological content of martyrdom and its political, moral, and emotional force are familiar dynamics in contests where domination and submission are pitted against each other. It is perhaps hard for contemporary westerners to recognize that the ideological inheritance embedded in the idea of “martyrdom” has not always been self-evident. If Western (and notably American) culture is steeped in ideas of martyrdom, it has...

  9. 3 THE MARTYR’S MEMORY: Autobiography and Self-Writing in Ignatius, Perpetua, and Pionius
    (pp. 69-103)

    The genesis of early Christian collective memory of martyrdom cannot be traced backward to a simple or singular parentage, as should be clear from the preceding discussion of the overlapping historical and ideological discourses that revolve around early Christian martyrdom. Nor does the genealogy of memory and martyrdom map straightforwardly onto a monolithic historical narrative. And yet, from the earliest examples of persecution and punishment, a generative impulse to record and remember these stories shaped the literary, liturgical, artistic, and architectural programs of Christian communities. From the discussion in the previous chapter, one can see how Christian theorists shaped the...

    (pp. 104-133)

    In the preface to The Martyrs of Palestine, Eusebius of Caesarea situates his history of the martyrs of the Diocletianic persecution within the frame of the apostolic exhortation to remember the saints.¹ This memory is to be preserved, Eusebius avers, not in perishable images but in immortal words.

    So, for our part, we who need the help of their prayers and are commanded also in the book of the Apostles to communicate in the commemoration of the saints, let us also communicate with them, and let us begin to describe their contests against sin, contests whose fame is at all...

  11. 5 LAYERS OF VERBAL AND VISUAL MEMORY: Commemorating Thecla the Protomartyr
    (pp. 134-171)

    Near the end of his two-volume work on the life and miracles of the early Christian saint, apostle, and martyr Thecla, an anonymous fifth-century Christian writer claims that the memory work of his hagiography has involved the arduous labor of rescue and retrieval, ransoming the past from the inexorable passage of time and the yawning abyss of oblivion.¹ He has been working on his writing project for a long time by this point, between thirty and forty years according to his modern editor.² As the work comes to a conclusion, the hagiographer describes his intense commemorative labor as a painful...

  12. 6 RELIGION AS A CHAIN OF MEMORY: Cassie Bernall of Columbine High and the American Legacy of Early Christian Martyrdom
    (pp. 172-196)

    On April 20, 1999, two students at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, brought an arsenal of bombs and guns to school. They proceeded on a murderous shooting spree that left two dozen students wounded and twelve other students and a teacher dead. They brought their attack to an end with their own suicides. The aftermath of this tragedy was, in many respects, predictable: journalists, commentators, and advocates sought to uncover the motivations of the two killers, whom Time Magazine featured menacingly on its cover as “The Monsters Next Door.”¹ Many people interpreted the events in Littleton in light of...

    (pp. 197-204)

    To participate in the preservation of the memory of martyrdom is to enter into a discourse that lionizes suffering in its most extreme forms: suffering endured in the service of an idea and/or a communal identity; suffering undertaken willingly or, perhaps more accurately, through the sublimation of the will to that of another; suffering that requires an audience and an interpretation.¹ The discourse of martyrdom is also a discourse of power, which is why anxieties emerge about the creation of martyrs in contemporary political situations, particularly when the state exercises its power to take life, whether through capital punishment or...

  14. NOTES
    (pp. 205-282)
    (pp. 283-324)
  16. INDEX
    (pp. 325-336)