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Review: Heretics, Jonathan Wright

Heretics: The Creation of Christianity from the Gnostics to the Modern Church is precisely what it says on the cover; Wright describes how heresy has helped to shape the Western Christian church and delves into the history of individual heretics and how their treatment has varied across history. In many ways, heretics forced Christian thinking in certain directions, causing them to explain a bit more clearly what were appropriate beliefs and how Christians should worship their God. Wright examines the stories of all of the well-known heretics, including those that inspired the break to Protestantism, and how heresy became a crime, up to today, when heretics may not be burned at the stake but exist nevertheless.

I loved this book so much that there is no way I will ever be able to do justice to it in a review. Wright is precisely the sort of historian that I completely adore. He doesn’t dumb down his subject, but explains it in ways that everyone can understand, complete with asides that made me laugh and had the people around me doubting I was actually reading non-fiction about religion.Theological issues are almost always very complex, and often boring for many (he isn’t afraid to say so outright), but I always felt like Wright explained them well and I could actually understand the development of the religion as the book went on. It never felt disrespectful, just completely open, and often the little humorous bits felt aimed at people who just love history, like me. I adore books that feel like they were written just for me and this is certainly one of those.

Wright starts us off with the actual original definition of heresy – it’s derived from a Greek word meaning ‘to choose’. In essence, heretics chose to believe something other than the mainstream, and still do. They haven’t always been persecuted for their beliefs, especially in early Christianity, as they more nudged the consensus in a general direction and forced people to actually clarify what they believed in. Sometimes people who had been greatly respected in Christianity became heretics for various reasons, but there is never much of a logic to it; in the Middle Ages one man was condemned as a heretic and the other as a saint for doing the same thing. It was all very circumstantial.  In many cases, heresy became a tool for rulers to use in order to cow their subjects and demonstrate what a great job they were doing, for example. Wright also takes care to emphasize and demonstrate that usually, the Church wanted to reform heretics, not condemn and kill them. They did die in horrendous and gruesome ways, but that was not the idea, it’s just the part that sticks in modern heads the most (and the part that made an example to their contemporaries).

One of my very favorite aspects of this book was how Wright clearly delineates that historical societies were fundamentally different from ours. Many people did not have a concept of rights or freedoms that we take for granted; that doesn’t mean that no one ever thought of them, or even wrote about them, but quite simply things were different. We have a level of tolerance that we never had before (though he does probe at this as well – imagine a US President that isn’t a Christian). We can feel sorry for heretics and we can acknowledge that what was done to them was very often wrong, but we can never fully step into the shoes of a Puritan in Massachusetts persecuting a witch. He also takes particular care to note that this is his viewpoint, in the context of the twenty-first century, and that someone fifty or a hundred years from now will probably view these earlier times (and our own) in a completely different light.

Regardless, I found his text convincingly and logically argued; it does seem clear that heretics had a large role in shaping the present church and it’s certainly true that they’ve existed throughout history. I’m afraid I won’t be providing the violent disagreement he declares he craves! Instead I want to push Heretics in the hands of everyone I know now. It was such a fascinating read, such a wide scope of history, on such a difficult subject without any hint of judgement, and on an issue that still remains with us today. I adored this book and it will unquestionably be one of my favorite reads of 2011.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review from Netgalley.

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