New book by Syracuse University professor links religion, materiality in ancient Christianity
New book by Syracuse University professor links religion, materiality in ancient ChristianityMarch 30, 2009Rob Enslinrmenslin@syr.edu
Is Christianity living in the material world? Patricia Cox Miller thinks so. A new book by the Syracuse University religion professor argues that the trend might have started 1,700 years ago. “The Corporeal Imagination: Signifying the Holy in Late Ancient Christianity” (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009), Miller’s sixth book, traces the origins of religious materiality-the use of material substances to express holiness-to the period of Late Antiquity (A.D. 300-600) in European and Near Eastern history. A wide variety of texts from the period reveal how Christian writers increasingly described the matter of the world as invested with divine power.
“These writers appealed to their readers’ sense of imagination. They referenced relics, icons and saints’ bodies in their works as expressions of holiness and as conduits of divine power,” says Miller, who serves as the Bishop W. Earl Ledden Professor of Religion in SU’s College of Arts and Sciences. “My book draws on a variety of contemporary theoretical models to elucidate the significance of these materials in ancient religious life and imagination.” Miller, an expert in religious imagination of the Gnostic, Neoplatonic and early Christian traditions, says the relationship between materiality and meaning was positive in this period.
This trend was due, in part, to an edict of toleration in the early fourth century by the emperor Constantine, who decreed that the physical world was no longer an arena of prosecution. “Christians in Late Antiquity saw the material world with new eyes as a medium for the disclosure of the divine in the earthly realm,” she says. “The focus was on saintly human bodies as relics, animated icons, and performers of the holy in hagiography.””The Corporeal Imagination” has already drawn scholarly praise. J. Rebecca Lyman, professor emerita at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, Calif., calls it a “highly original contribution” to the study of Christianity and other religions. “Eloquent and learned, this book offers many new insights and models for reflections,” she says, adding that it will appeal to scholars of religions, theologians, historians of Late Antiquity and historians of art.
Miller, who has written more than 40 chapters, articles and essays, spent more than 10 years on “The Corporeal Imagination.” The book’s introduction and last four chapters were written in 2006-07, while she held a Guggenheim Fellowship. “Patricia Miller, through her outstanding teaching and creative contributions, reflects the dazzling faculty excellence within Arts and Sciences,” wrote then-Dean Cathryn Newton, in response to Miller’s receipt of the fellowship.
“The Corporeal Imagination” (ISBN 978-0-8122-4142-6) is part of Penn Press’ “Divinations: Rereading Late Ancient Religion” series. The book retails for $49.95 and is available at major outlets everywhere. For more information, visit http://www.upenn.edu/pennpress/book/14613.html.
More information about SU’s Department of Religion and The College of Arts and Sciences is available at http://thecollege.syr.edu.