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Carissa Turner Smith


Outing Early Christians

Scholarly clickbait.

The title of Douglas Boin's Coming Out Christian in the Roman World: How the Followers of Jesus Made a Place in Caesar's Empire is the print-medium equivalent of "clickbait." It arrests your frantic attention and makes you feel that, if you follow through to the content, your momentary focus will be rewarded. You simply must know: is this a book about gay Christians in the early church, or is "coming out" merely a metaphor for Christian conversion? Will reading this book miraculously endow you with wisdom to navigate the culture wars?

Short answer: the "coming out" of the title is a metaphor, and, while many readers of varying theological perspectives might hope that an analogy between early Christians and today's LGBTQ people could heal some rifts, here it's mostly used for window-dressing rather than substantial analysis. For example, take Boin's treatment of Constantine. After quoting Eusebius's description of Constantine as a man who "prided himself" on his Christianity, Boin elaborates: "Constantine must have struck quite a pose. The same Greek verb, 'to pride oneself' (enabrunomai), had been used to describe men like Julius Caesar who made risky fashion choices, such as wearing loose-fitting clothes."

Constantine: out and flamboyant about his Christianity. But Christian identity in the era of the early church wasn't merely a matter of public proclamation: it was deliberately chosen and involved casting aside an old self. Many LGBTQ people would object to applying that description to gay identity, so there are some obvious flaws in the analogy. But, while Boin chooses as his epigraph a passage from John Lewis Gaddis about how "science, history, and art … all depend on metaphor," he doesn't actually depend consistently on his own chosen metaphor. Apart from the title, a few passages like the Constantine section, and the last words of the book—"What ...

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