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Subverting Dominant Narratives about Early Christianity: An Interview with Georgia Frank

Georgia Frank is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Religion at Colgate University. She is a specialist in early Christianity, especially in Greek-speaking communities during the fourth through seventh centuries. Her research focuses on the intersection of gender, sensory experience, and emotion, with a focus on embodied practices such as pilgrimage, fasting, singing, storytelling, and other ritualized activities. Her upcoming book, Unfinished Christians, looks at how ordinary people experienced Christianity shortly after it was legalized. 

Anushka Srivastava (BPR): In your upcoming book, Unfinished Christians, you explore the everyday experiences of Christians in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries after Christianity was legalized. I am really interested in the way you look at primary sources to glean ordinary people’s lived experiences of religion, especially attempting to understand populations that have been excluded from most sources, such as women, enslaved people, and non­-elites. Can you tell me more about the sources you are looking at and how you are looking at them?

Georgia Frank: They are fairly conventional sources—hymns, sermons, and instruction books for proceedings and rituals. I am just reading them in a different lens or against the grain. They are still sources written by religious elites. But I am trying to read them with more of an ear for the audience, asking myself what it might be like for ordinary people to hear these things. 

AS: What were you surprised to find? What intrigued you when you read these sources with an ear for the audience?

GF: The first thing I found was how many metaphors for crafting there were. A lot of people thought of baptism sermons as all about the symbolism of water, and that is true. But I found recurring references to molding and making, and the language of fabrication—that the soul is in the process of being continually crafted.

I also found nuance in sermons. The preacher would stop and say, “Wait a minute, settle down,” or, “I know there aren’t a lot of you here today, and I am not going to get upset about that.”

I know at this time of year, attendance in university lectures goes down. It was like that in fourth century churches, too. People’s lives were busy. Those are the times when a preacher might say, “Now, I am speaking to you women in the audience,” or, “don’t get all excited,” or, “I know this is not what you want to hear.” Those little things were preserved in the sermon transcriptions. From this, you get the feeling of a live audience. There is so much more audience reaction and presence than I thought there was when I first read these sources.

AS: So, you would gloss over these things unless you are really looking for them, and you parse out how sermons are not so unidirectional. Clearly, there is a back and forth.

GF: The whole book is quite dialogic. For instance, in the songs soloists sang in church, every stanza ended with a refrain from the congregation. Even though it is scripted for them, it was their voice and indicated them taking on another character. I wanted to take something that was seen as unidirectional and convey how it is actually more dialogic than we thought.

AS: Seeing the soul as an object in the process of being continually crafted seems to be a central tenet of early Christianity. How does this conception of the ever-improving soul fit in with the normative aims of Christianity? And how was it instrumentalized to mold political citizens in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries?

GF: The most important idea for me in that book is crafting. It is not just elites who learn to craft themselves through education—how to give good speeches, how to walk, or how to compose themselves. Of course, there were a lot of people who were molded and groomed to be elite citizens. Some early Christians went to live in communities that intentionally separated themselves—they were what we might call monastics or ascetics today. They followed very strict regimens of diet, sexual abstinence, and exposure to the elements. That was also described as a kind of molding. 

But what about ordinary people? Did they, too, become part of this culture of self-making and self-molding? I found the answer to that question in the sermons they heard when they were preparing to convert to Christianity. There was a widespread culture of molding and crafting citizens, but I wanted to also think about how molding gets embodied and how it gets honored. Those are terms I learned from reading Claudia Rankine’s book, Citizen. It really got me thinking about how citizens are made, what is a citizen, and who gets to hold that status. So, I was shifting this analytical lens of the culture of molding to ordinary people.

AS: How did the legalization and proliferation of early Christianity alter the meaning of a citizen? 

GF: Among Latin-speaking Christians, there was a figure called Augustine. He was the Bishop of Hippo in the fourth century. His most notable work includes The Confessions and The City of God. He contrasted the Roman city and Roman citizenship with citizenship in God’s city. Christians have long had this conception of citizenship that their place was not here on Earth. They were citizens of another place—another world, really.

They saw themselves as temporary inhabitants. They were like what some countries might call residents with alien status or landed immigrants just passing through. Legalization really changed the question around citizenship because suddenly this is now your world. The world is not hostile to you. The state is not a persecuting state anymore. So, what does citizenship mean? Can you be otherworldly? And be ready to die for it? I think what interested me about studying Christians shortly after legalization is how they start finding their place in the world. I do not really draw from a specific theory of citizenship in this book, but I think about how bodies enact citizenship. And how do you do that in the Roman world?

AS: How did bodies enact citizenship in the Roman world?

GF: A lot of it is in processions based on ideas of how we move through space. Religion is done outdoors. Religion is not just something inside your head that you believe. It is in your gestures, your actions, your ways of being in the world. To me, citizenship is embodied, and it is very public. In other words, processions use the rituals of urban citizenship to enact Christian values and realities. On the one hand, Romans had big processions including animal sacrifice. We know that Christians did not carry knives or ceremonially sacrifice animals, but they still had their own momentous processions. They wanted to stake their own citizenship. They wanted to lay claim to it.

Finally, there is the idea of who polices those boundaries. Say we have a bunch of Christian elites saying “if you want to be a real Christian, you don’t participate in those ‘other’ people’s worship ceremonies; you do not participate in their processions.” Who is policing those boundaries? My claim is that ordinary Christians are not as wrapped up in labels as the sources written by elites of the time would indicate. In the religion of everyday people, the boundaries were pretty fluid. Even though some people might have used strong language, the diversity of ways that people practiced processions becomes a means of contesting space. 

AS: This really highlights how sometimes various claims to citizenship can clash with each other. Animal sacrifice is one example. But I find it interesting that everyday Christianity was not so extreme. You are challenging notions—that were widely proliferated via the well­-known sources of that time—of how Christianity was really practiced, especially by looking at proceedings. It paints a much richer picture of the diversity of lived religion.

GF: I’m glad you brought up sacrifice because in the Roman Empire, you were a good citizen if you performed ritual sacrifice. The gods would then take care of your state. However, Christians refused to perform sacrifices–that was one of the reasons they so antagonized Roman authorities–and they were killed for it when Christianity was outlawed. So after legalization, how did Christians find their place in that world? It became an open question. When you have a hero dying for a cause, it’s easier to rally around a cause than when the threat is gone. 

AS: These proceedings largely occurred in public settings. How can we understand how Christianity was experienced in private settings?

GF: I originally was going to write a whole chapter on the home and the domestic setting. And the only sources I could find were about preachers dictating what people should be doing in their home. It was very prescriptive—the image of someone else’s home. There are lots of sermons where they say things along the lines of, “oh, those stupid women are doing these stupid rituals to prevent miscarriages and doing various things to help their infant children live longer.”

But there are also scholars working on domestic Christianity, like Nicola Denzey Lewis. There is also an amazing professor at The College of the Holy Cross, Caroline Johnson Hodge, who is writing a book on magic rituals and domestic Christianity before the fourth century. Hodge is doing such a good job with this that I decided to shift my book to focus on the public sphere. Writing about the private sphere also takes a historian with a much better understanding of the spaces of enslaved peoples and homes. 

AS: Speaking of populations that have been invisibilized in a lot of these sources, how were you able to glean the lived experience of Christianity for women and enslaved people? What are some ways that they contested their invisibilization?

GF: Writing these stories takes a robust imagination. You take whatever you can get your hands on: whatever idea, whatever reference to their experience you can find, no matter how little, and you build out from that. These sources might not have the level of precision that you would have for those concerning the experiences of elites. You read against your sources. If some people were invisibilized or even demonized in someone else’s sources, you would ask yourself: What can I trace about their existence? Going back to the metaphor of molding and crafting, archaeologists have shown that workshops were deeply embedded in the fabric of the ancient city; they were not zoned in a corner of town. We then realize that there was probably more contact with people of different classes, even for elites. As an elite, you probably still knew how sculptures were made, how pottery was created. With income inequality in our country, people can be very disconnected from one another. But if you think about the small-­scale city in the ancient world, you are always somewhere in somebody’s direct or peripheral vision. 

A lot of African American historians are working on recovering the lives of enslaved people by looking at the records and archives. How can you bring dignity back to something that has been seen as someone else’s problem? Marisa Fuentes or Saidiya Hartman gave me a way of thinking about this: Let’s take what we have and do what we can. I find that it creates more visibility than just letting the silence speak for itself.

The other piece of your question is how invisibilized people themselves contest their invisibilization. Of course, there was forced conversion in late antiquity—enslaved peoples were part of households who converted. Did they have real agency? If you start at a point of finding agency where others have tried to remove it, to me that is a step towards contestation. You are always looking for acts of resistance and where resistance is enacted. There is a professor at Cornell who is doing great work on laws and stories about slaves who try to poison their masters. We don’t know if they are true, but you learn to read the dominant sources very carefully, and with a hermeneutic of suspicion. These are some ways of bringing agency back. It’s more an art than a science.

AS: What are some modern applications of your study? How can we apply that same kind of thinking and methodology when looking for resistance in the modern day?

GF: One application is the fluidity of identities back then as well as today. That sounds so obvious, but I think in religious studies, we tend to think of religious identities as more fixed. Religions are incredibly diverse, even internally. And who speaks for a religious tradition? Do we only let preachers or clergy speak for it? Or can you find the voices of ordinary people who are engaged in some aspect of it? The diversity of Christianity was already there from the beginning. 

Another takeaway is to push back against people who try to perpetuate the obfuscation of other identities by saying there is no evidence to support their existence in ancient sources. This is what people said in the 1970s about women’s history. Well, people worked with what they had. Now, all those categories are being reimagined and intersectionality is asking even better questions of us. When somebody says something like, “history is written by the winners,” I respond, “give me some time and a good library, and maybe I can find history from another angle.” There is always someone else’s story out there. It just takes time and imagination to find it. In short, I find it necessary to think of religions not solely in terms of those who claim to speak for them, but also in terms of other voices as well.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.