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.
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