Brief Book Note: Peter Brown’s “Ransom of the Soul”

I’ve wanted to read this book since it was first published in 2015. And I’ve had the paperback version on pre-order for a while. So I was thrilled when I got the notification that it had shipped, and knew that I would be able to put it at the top of my “books that I hope to read this summer” pile.

Peter Brown, The Ransom of the Soul: Afterlife and Wealth in Early Western Christianity (Harvard, 2018).

Now, you might find it odd, gentle reader, that I would be so interested in a book on the afterlife since I recently commented in another post that “It may be that death is a site of encounter with God. Beyond that, there isn't much one can say.” It’s the intersection of wealth with afterlife that made me curious. Here’s how I would summarize the question answered in this book:

How did Christianity in the first half-millennium leverage its vision of the afterlife in order to discipline wealth?

Brown answers that question, as we’ve come to expect from him, in exciting detail, with seemingly effortless prose, and a highly refined instinct for tracking the intersection of social and intellectual change through time.

I’d love to write a series of long blog posts about it but, alas, other duties call me away. Suffice it to say that the stuff on Augustine was some of my favorite stuff in the book. I was excited to learn about the discovery of new Augustine sermons on almsgiving in the Erfurt University library a decade or so ago, and also about a letter that Augustine wrote to Cyril of Alexandria. The historical theology nerd in me got a bit giddy over that. I was also pleased by Brown’s discussion of Augustine as a minimalize when it came to the afterlife: not so far from my quote above after all!

Augustine worked to set up a reflex of daily, low-key almsgiving as a way to offset daily, low-key sin, thereby providing a steady stream of resources that the church could use to support the poor. This developed into a full-blown religious economy in later centuries, with the church functioning as a trust-fund for “the socially dead and the physically dead,” thus constituting a categorically different kind of wealth. If you were rich and wanted to die a good death, what better way to demonstrate the sincerity of your Christian commitment than offloading a good chunk of that wealth to the church? Brown ends by sketching how monastic institutions came to displace the poor and the dead as the preferred recipients for almsgiving.

You should definitely read this book.


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castaway said…
Just ordered the Kindle version ... thanks for your review.

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