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Virginia Burrus explores one of the strongest and most disturbing aspects of the Christian tradition, its excessive preoccupation with shame. While Christianity has frequently been implicated in the conversion of ancient Mediterranean cultures from shame- to guilt-based, and thus in the emergence of the modern West's emphasis on guilt, Burrus seeks to recuperate the importance of shame for Christian culture. Focusing on late antiquity, she explores a range of fascinating phenomena, from the flamboyant performances of martyrs to the imagined abjection of Christ, from the self-humiliating disciplines of ascetics to the intimate disclosures of Augustine.Burrus argues that Christianity innovated less by replacing shame with guilt than by embracing shame. Indeed, the ancient Christians sacrificed honor but laid claim to their own shame with great energy, at once intensifying and transforming it. Public spectacles of martyrdom became the most visible means through which vulnerability to shame was converted into a defiant witness of identity; this was also where the sacrificial death of the self exemplified by Christ's crucifixion was most explicitly appropriated by his followers. Shame showed a more private face as well, as Burrus demonstrates. The ambivalent lure of fleshly corruptibility was explored in the theological imaginary of incarnational Christology. It was further embodied in the transgressive disciplines of saints who plumbed the depths of humiliation. Eventually, with the advent of literary and monastic confessional practices, the shame of sin's inexhaustibility made itself heard in the revelations of testimonial discourse.In conversation with an eclectic constellation of theorists, Burrus interweaves her historical argument with theological, psychological, and ethical reflections. She proposes, finally, that early Christian texts may have much to teach us about the secrets of shame that lie at the heart of our capacity for humility, courage, and transformative love.
Has a repressive morality been the primary contribution of Christianity to the history of sexuality? The ascetic concerns that pervade ancient Christian texts would seem to support such a common assumption. Focusing on hagiographical literature, Virginia Burrus pursues a fresh path of interpretation, arguing that the early accounts of the lives of saints are not antierotic but rather convey a sublimely transgressive "countereroticism" that resists the marital, procreative ethic of sexuality found in other strands of Christian tradition.Without reducing the erotics of ancient hagiography to a single formula, The Sex Lives of Saints frames the broad historical, theological, and theoretical issues at stake in such a revisionist interpretation of ascetic eroticism, with particular reference to the work of Michel Foucault and Georges Bataille, David Halperin and Geoffrey Harpham, Leo Bersani and Jean Baudrillard. Burrus subsequently proceeds through close, performative readings of the earliest Lives of Saints, mostly dating to the late fourth and early fifth centuries--Jerome's Lives of Paul, Malchus, Hilarion, and Paula; Gregory of Nyssa's Life of Macrina; Augustine's portrait of Monica; Sulpicius Severus's Life of Martin; and the slightly later Lives of so-called harlot saints. Queer, s/m, and postcolonial theories are among the contemporary discourses that prove intriguingly resonant with an ancient art of "saintly" loving that remains, in Burrus's reading, promisingly mobile, diverse, and open-ended.
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