Modern Scholar series (part III)

I’ve listened to a couple more volumes in the Modern Scholar series over the past month. The first was A History of Ancient Rome, by Utah State University professor Frances Titchener. This set of lectures was not among the best of those I’ve listened to in this series, though I’ve also heard worse. Covering 1,500 or so years of complex history in 14 half-hour lectures is not an easy task, and she certainly deserves some freedom to present it as she sees fit, but I found the presentation overly idiosyncratic, nonetheless. Professor Titchener displayed an annoying habit of talking down to her students by means of occasional glib and sassy interludes that could perhaps best be described as reducing events to comic book dialog. Perhaps it makes her seem hip and approachable to younger students, but I doubt most of the audience for this Recorded Books venture has a lot of interest in such intellectual shortcuts. Of course, I could be wrong.

Despite being quite interested in the subject matter, and in need of this kind of survey to help me piece together my limited knowledge of it, I was pretty tired of Professor Titchenor by the time the final lecture came along, the one covering the period from Constantine until the fall of Rome in 476. Then she dropped some doozies.

Taking her cue, as she acknowledges, from Gibbon, the last lecture is dedicated essentially to explaining the various ways that Christianity was responsible for the destruction of the Roman Empire. Some of this is familiar ground to anyone aware of Gibbon’s thinking on the subject, but this was the first time I’ve ever heard anyone suggest that, unlike in the Western Empire, where the pope and the emperor would create vulnerability to the marauding barbarians by the slowing down of the apparatus of state decision-making on account of their quarreling over the best approach to solve problems(!), strength was maintained in the East, at least in part, because decisions were made “rapidly, firmly, and finally,” since “the Patriarch of Constantinople was also the Roman Emperor.” I’m not making this up – I went back and double-checked the recording to make sure I had heard correctly. She claims that the offices of Patriarch and Emperor were filled by one and the same man.

I might have been inclined to give her a mulligan for the factual faux pas, even if it does display an ignorance of the relationship between the Church and the empire that is remarkable for an historian of the period, but I then had to suffer through a series of tired, Gibbon-esque arguments that tried to show how Christianity’s rejection of statist idolatry amounted to a mass renunciation of civic responsibility, which served as an open invitation for barbarian invasion. It’s hard to understand how anybody can take this theory seriously, given how poorly it understands historical Christianity, and how it completely fails to account for either how the equally-Christian eastern half of the empire survived as an empire – and at times thrived – for another millennium, or how the Arian Christianity of the invading barbarians did nothing to dull their own martial fortitude.

Titchener ended the lectures with an academic fantasia on how the Roman state had fathered Christianity, and how this patriarchal culture had ultimately been destroyed by its son. References to the son’s desire to usurp the affections of the mother were blessedly absent, but that’s about the only good thing I can say about the way this lecture set ended.

On the other hand we have Religions of the East: Paths to Enlightenment, from Boston University’s Stephen Prothero. I don’t think it was the most insightful presentation of the various surveyed belief systems in and of themselves, but Prothero does a nice job of showing the historic movement of Eastern religious thought, beginning in the Vedic period. The strength of his approach is in the clear demonstration of the continuity and relatedness of the various religious strands. The parallels with the Western world’s movement toward Romanticism and democracy are striking, though Prothero doesn’t try to draw it out, except for a couple brief references made to protestantizing tendencies. Of the groups discussed, only the Sikhs are presented in a way that doesn’t really seem to contextualize them historically very well. I do think he could have skipped the final lecture, on Buddhism in pop culture, as it is rather brief and thin, and doesn’t add much to the survey. This one is worth the time to listen to, though, if you’re looking for some general clarification on the various belief systems of the Orient.