Kangas, William E. How the First Christians Changed Dying. Ann Arbor, MI: Missio Media, 2012.
How did the advent of Christianity change the perception of the most natural of events, death? This is precisely the question addressed in How the First Christians Changed Dying, the debut book from William Kangas. In this work, Kangas, a doctoral student in Liturgical Studies and Sacramental Theology at The Catholic University of America, uses a broad range of sources to provide an overview of the decisive role the view of death – what it should, could, and does mean – had in Christianity’s formative stage.
In his book, Kangas first discusses the visions of death in various cultures surrounding the early Church in order to see both the differences and similarities with the view of death given birth with the beginning of Christianity. He then focuses on the event which truly differentiates the Christian view: the resurrection of Jesus. The resurrection forced early Christians to face and accommodate death in a new way, a way that shaped the practice of those early Christians. With the understandings of the death and resurrection of Christ handed down from the likes of Origen, Augustine, and Athanasius, to name a few summarized in the book, Christians are able to see death as conquered. This allowed the early Church to face persecution and transform rituals inherited from their roots, subjects which are dealt with in depth in the following two chapters.
As may be evident in the title, Kangas sets out to differentiate the perception of death in Christian thought from the cultural milieu surrounding it, including, but not limited to, two of the most influential thought patterns, the Greek and the Hebrew. In tackling this question, he is able to show the divisive and decisive role the Christian’s approach to death took in forming it as a distinct entity. Basing his analysis in the assumption of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, death is shown to be conquered and thus it can be embraced. This is contrasted with the Jewish shirking from death in reverence for ritual purity laws and the Greek dismissal of the body as a consequence of their dualism. In this light, the break of Christianity from its Jewish roots and its initial shunning from Greek society can be comprehended. In one sense, the reason Christian belief is unique is as simple as referencing Jesus Christ, but Kangas delves deep into the implications of the death and resurrection of this man to characterize the distinction on a detailed level.
In order to make his argument, Kangas consults a broad range of sources, including the earliest Christian theologians. However, the strength of this work comes not only from consulting the go-to theologians, but also utilizing the work of theologians representing ecumenical and culturally diverse perspectives. Kangas does a fantastic job doing what perhaps he does best as a liturgist: connecting the actions of individuals and groups to the beliefs and intentions underlying them. The book’s arguments do not take place in an abstract, ethereal world, but in the concrete motions of the first Christians in worship and even their martyrdom. Kangas is able to deduce what is truly behind these actions and argue for wider thought patterns that are under revision with the advent of Christianity.
The work itself is somewhere between an academic and a popular book. The theology is not just a “dumbed down” version of a theological work, but showcases Kangas’ ability to take complex theological themes and make them understandable at the popular level. However, there are instances where the book falls short and theological language and concepts are utilized without adequate explanation.
Sometimes the author does oversimplify concepts, but that is probably inevitable due to the breadth of his sources and the nature of this work as an introduction. For instance, in the discussion of the roots of Christian baptism, Kangas claims the ritual grew from Jewish conversion rituals when this is not perhaps as clear as the book suggests. It is not that the claims made by the author are not supported, but issues such as this are glossed over too easily. Kangas puts in a valiant effort to treat all the main issues surrounding death, but it is perhaps too much for a book of this nature.
Overall, How the First Christians Changed Dying acts as a wonderful introduction to the Christian perception of death, the reasons behind it, and what differentiates it from other views. This work does an excellent job whetting a reader’s appetite on the subject, covering enough to be a substantial work while also leaving room for further investigation. In the process, Kangas provides many avenues with his references for someone wishing to pursue further study. The work is concise, accessible, and rather short. It is well worth the read if you are searching for what make a Christian distinct in their beliefs. It is a look at a vital period of Christian history and theology, one that has not otherwise been explored in such an accessible and concise way.