Systematicians, ethicists, and historians of theology have long pondered the role of saints in the spiritual and intellectual life of the Christian community. In Flesh Made Word, Aviad Kleinberg offers a sociological perspective on hagiography that is at once provocative and challenging. He discovers in the stories of the saints from early Christianity to the later Middle Ages sources complexly formative of the Christian religious experience.
Central to Kleinberg’s project is his definition of charisma, not as an objective attribute possessed by the saint, but rather as a “disposition on the part of a particular group to attribute exceptional qualities, generally a relationship with God, to one of its members” (8). The designation of someone as charismatic is the result of a process of negotiation between the saint and the community in which the saint receives authority from the community in exchange for sharing the spiritual powers that flow from her special relationship with the divine. Kleinberg contends that while the saint’s example is a vital source of communicative religious experience, and is valued as such throughout the church, her liminal status between the human and divine also threatens the church’s power and self-understanding. Thus the saint’s story belongs to the church and yet exercises authority beyond the control of the institution’s elites. These narratives form part of a social dynamic that reinvigorates and reinterprets the Christian experience for each generation of believers.
Kleinberg’s exploration of saints’ narratives begins with the martyrs of the early church and progresses through asceticism into the late medieval period. Rather than a timeline of the genre’s development, his descriptive history offers insight into the sociological complexities in which these stories were created and received. For instance, martyrdom narratives in the early church are connected with the response of the first disciples to the death of Christ; Christianity’s emergence from Judaism and encounter with pagan nature cults; the contributions of popular piety and theological orthodoxy to developing soteriologies; and the political and cultural influence of the Roman Empire. By examining diverse aspects of the historical situation of these stories, Kleinberg prepares his readers to find in the saints’ narratives multiple messages that are as pluriform and contradictory as their historical contexts.
Kleinberg enters into interpretative exegesis of saints’ stories by employing insights from sociology, psychology and literary criticism. Both well-known saints, such as the martyr Perpetua and Francis of Assisi, and relatively more obscure, or even apocryphal, figures such as Fra Ginepro and the ascetic Paul are included. He argues that these narratives are not artifacts of the historical record, but are rather catalysts for the creation and interpretation of Christian religious experience. Just as Kleinberg does not consider charism a property of the saint, so is the saint’s story not simply her own, but rather serves as an icon within which the spiritual and social needs of the contemporary community are discovered and given voice (27).
Kleinberg’s sociological and historical lenses contribute a necessary and critical edge to the study of popular piety and hagiography. His exegesis of saints’ narratives provides a fresh perspective that prompts further consideration of how narratives function both spiritually and politically within the Christian tradition. Therefore this highly readable text serves not only as a helpful historical prospectus, but also as an entry point for evaluating present day narratives of faith and holiness. Though the temporal landscape Kleinberg covers is impressive, however, it also poses potential problems for the project. Developing an adequately deep description of any one time period or geographic location is extremely difficult, and the scope of Kleinberg’s work covers centuries and continents. The number of insights he develops from relatively short historical descriptions suggests the fruitfulness that more focused sociological exegesis of saints’ narratives may yield. Further, while the book is centered on examples of sociological exegesis in its final form, Kleinberg does not make explicit his methodology. An introductory discussion about method might not only serve to strengthen Kleinberg’s thesis, but also allow Flesh Made Word to make an even greater contribution to scholarship on the saints.