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The Independent Critic

 Book Review: Strange Religion by Nijay K. Gupta 
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What really made the first Christians different?

This is the foundation for New Testament researcher and noted author Nijay Gupta's "Strange Religion: How the First Christians Were Weird, Dangerous, and Compelling."

Gupta co-chairs the Pauline Theology Seminary of the Institute for Biblical Research and serves as a senor translator for the New Living Translation. Thus, he brings into "Strange Religion" both extensive research and a well-developed understanding of how Christianity fit, or mostly didn't fit, into a world that was governed by inaccessible gods and a Roman empire that wasn't particularly concerned about the relational aspects of faith.

As Gupta states very early in the book, the first Christians were weird and it feels likely that modern day Christians aren't really aware of just how weird.

"Strange Religion" is divided into four distinct sections - Becoming Christian, What the First Christians Believed, How the First Christians Worshipped, and How the First Christians Lived. There's a natural flow to the sections that works well and Gupta both introduces and concludes the book. As one would expect, there's a wealth of provided citations to end the book.

"Strange Religion" is likely to most appeal to those wishing to gain an understanding of the earliest foundations of Christianity and how it stood out. Those with a stronger knowledge of Christian history, and most certainly seminary graduates, will appreciate Gupta's work but will likely not learn as much as a significant amount of material that's here is fairly basic knowledge of early Christianity. While it's fun to explore this period through the lens of just how completely weird it all is, if there's a basic lack in the book for me it's that the "weirdness" never really registered.

Maybe it's because I'm too weird for it?

However, one can't help but appreciate Gupta's extensive research and ability to make accessible just what made Christianity so different than Roman society. The earliest Christians had beliefs that were odd and practices that were entirely unique. They believed unusual things, worshipped God in strange ways, and lived as outsiders in a society where that choice alone could be considered quite dangerous. Quite simply, they did religion differently. To understand this, is to really begin to grasp the intentional choice that the first Christians made to be different and to push boundaries and to begin a transformation of how society viewed religion. It was bold and brave and it caught on like wildfire.

"Strange Religion" is more of an introduction to this world, both surprisingly brief in subject matter and overall length and more prescriptive than engaging. This isn't a bad thing - "Strange Religion" starts a valuable discussion and I'll admit that even as a seminary graduate myself I found myself digging back into my theology to look up Christian history, terminology, and beliefs/practices. Gupta's obvious excitement with this material made me excited - in turn, I found myself starting with "Strange Religion" and exploring further.

The final edition of "Strange Religion," my version was an ARC lacking the images/graphics to be included, will have numerous images to enhance Gupta's informative and intellectually stimulating material.

"Strange Religion" is an accessible introduction to religion in the Roman world and how the early faith and practices of the first Christians began to change that world. Both worlds, if we're being honest, were kind of strange though the Roman world was the accepted norm and Christianity upended it. In a world where conformity can often be expected, "Strange Religion" is, perhaps most of all, a reminder that we may very well be called to be weird, strange, and dangerous in living out what it means to be Christian.

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic