Wright suggests that if we want to know why Christianity turned out the way it did, look at its heretics.
“Heresy” derives from the Greek phrase meaning “to choose.” In ancient times it was applied to members of rival philosophical schools. With Christianity it acquired a darker meaning.
He quotes a medieval theologian: “Heresy, he wrote, is 'an opinion chosen by human perception, contrary to Holy Scripture, publicly avowed and obstinately defended.'” (3) “To be a heretic was to dissent publicly and repeatedly from genuine Christianity.” (4) Heretics were worse than pagans for they had been shown the right way but chose to go another way.
There was no single, authentic version of Christianity to which all true Christians subscribed in the early church. Divergent Christian identities emerged in various geographical areas. Christians struggled through disputes in the early centuries. Perhaps heresy served to cause theological battles so that certain themes emerged victorious, guaranteeing the name of orthodoxy and providing power and authority for the winners.
Wright takes the reader through the teachings of a number of heretics, through the Reformation and into the New World, America. He admits that he has concentrated on the Western Church, leaving the other geographical areas for other scholars.
The keystone of Wright's analysis is that “a specific culture's moral and philosophical postures are fleeting, contingent, and historically determined, and that this has profound consequences for how we interpret the history of Christian heresy...” (294) He understands “that it is entirely possible to construct a narrative of heresy in which everything looks different.” (295)
He concludes, “The history of Christian heresy should make us think long and hard about how human beings construct their belief systems and how they react to those with whom they disagree.” (295) His fondest hope “is that someone will disagree violently with my musings and let me know.” (295)
This book releases April 27, 2011. I read an advanced reader's copy in an egalley form provided by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Press.
You can order a copy from Amazon here.