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Downward, Outward, Later
Some of my best friends are classicists. Growing weary of the popular assumption that their supposedly tweedy profession involves only an obsessive retreading of the same few ancient texts, they have developed a convenient formula that outlines the modern changes in the discipline: downward, outward, later. As classicists and ancient historians delve deeper in the social strata, exploring the lot of the cast-off and marginalized, they also move toward the fringes of empire, and indeed into the barbarian lands beyond. And they concern themselves not just with golden ages but also with the long-neglected later years of decline and ruin, the years of tarnished silver, if not of pure dross. And in each of these new dimensions, classicists find themselves reinventing their subject, as they realize the paper thin walls that separate the study of Greece and Rome from the disciplines of social and gender history, anthropology and sociology, African and Asian studies.
Without apology, I will here be appropriating that dynamic three-word slogan to describe some important recent directions in the study of Christianity, in which the concerns and interests of the immediate present determine the questions we seek to ask of the past. Particularly over the past quarter century, the history of Christianity has moved enthusiastically downward, to focus on the lived experience of ordinary believers, no less than the great deeds of celebrated leaders. In more senses than one, it has also moved outward, recognizing that the Christian experience cannot be contained within denominations but must be explored to the margins of orthodoxy and beyond. And perhaps most important of all, it has expanded geographically, with a powerful emphasis on the global, non-Euro/American experience. Living in a world in which the most dramatic Christian growth occurs in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, how could historians do otherwise? Finally, historians move later, both in the sense of discussing the roots ...