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Theatrical Shows and Ascetic Lives: John…
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Theatrical Shows and Ascetic Lives: John Chrysostom's Attack on Spiritual…

by Blake Leyerle

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This book is an academic incursion in familiar terrain of St. John Chrysostom's writings about "spiritual marriage." However, the author discovers peaks and valleys in her insights that are likely to delight readers, because she explores Chrysostom's case against spiritual marriage with a new lens. Beware. What this author sees and describes could challenge some traditional readings of Chrysostom not only on spiritual marriage, but also asceticism overall.

Professor Leyerle explores an intersection between theatrical display and use of theatre to convey morals in ancient Greece and Rome. At this intersection Leyerle examines how Chrysostom used ancient attitudes in favor of the stage to convince Christians against spiritual marriage, even though Chrysostom was opposed to the theatre. Depicting the irony of Chrysostom's occasional use of oratorical flourishes and devices that resembled drama, Leyerle notes that ecclesiastical orators provided "...a form of recreation and delight not unlike that of the shows" [60] in late-ancient Byzantium.

Leyerle admits that the study of drama in homilies of Chrysostom has occupied scholars for the past century [6]. She builds upon this fact in order to expose a distribution of theatrical comedy and tragedy along gender lines in Chrysostom's treatment of "spiritual marriage." Men filled a comedic role on the oratorical stage constructed by Chrysostom. They became "buffoon" and "henpecked husband" in his critique of spiritual marriage. Women, on the other hand, he cast as tragic characters [7].

Suffice it to say that virgin wives of Chrysostom's sermons against spiritual marriage resemble Clytemnestra and Antigone in earlier Greek theater. For example, try to imagine Antigone married to Haemon, if Haemon were to have survived Sophocles' version of the Oedipus epic. What would a tragic character like Antigone do married to an albatross like Haemon? She might mix her poisons, to borrow Leyerle's metaphor of the ancient femme fatale, until the virgin wife robs her monk-husband of his masculinity [8-9,188-9,202-4]. After stealing her virgin husband's masculinity in spiritual marriage, the virago-virgin wife would then be able to maintain the theatrical illusion that she held the power outright. Oh, sweet and tragic pleasure. It was nothing more than slight of hand.

What of pleasures for the clowns, viz. the men in spiritual marriages? They, too, derived pleasure while sharing everything in common except the bed with their wives. Indeed, the spiritual husbands were pleased on two counts. First, their wives attracted voyeuristic attention well into their forties, for the wives had been "...spared the traumatic sequelae of intercourse--pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing" [111]. Second, desire unfulfilled is desire never disappointed, which kept the spiritual husband's eyes affixed on a visual feast inside his own dwelling. To be more specific, Leyerle contends that Chrysostom employed dramatic images and skills so that Christians might recognize latent desires in spiritual marriages that had been depicted as absent or "pure" by contra-arguments.

I believe that this book presents Chrysostom's argument against spiritual marriage from an angle that theologians, historians, philosophers, cultural anthropologists, and linguists have not considered in all likelihood. Bringing cultural, theatrical and gender studies to the task, Leyerle has investigated Chrysostom's objections to spiritual marriage by way of him exercising control over social behavior in his own day. As readers will see, as well, Leyerle accomplished far more.

She also made a compelling case for practical applications to people and situations in our day. Every sentient adult has risked and lost battles when it comes to compelling and/or coercing others, by use of dramatic images, to follow a course of action. However, when it comes to the exercise of ecclesiastical authority, Leyerle suggests that an orator's dramatic images and tropes remove guises and render an audience vulnerable [206-11]. To what end, Leyerle questions, might dramatic devices cut both ways? ( )
  Basileios919 | Mar 22, 2010 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0520215583, Hardcover)

This book provides an original and rewarding context for understanding the prolific fourth-century Christian theologian John Chrysostom and the religious and social world in which he lived. Blake Leyerle analyzes two highly rhetorical treatises by this early church father attacking the phenomenon of "spiritual marriage." Spiritual marriage was an ascetic practice with a long history in which a man and a woman lived together in an intimate relationship without sex. What begins as an analysis of Chrysostom's attack on spiritual marriage becomes a broad investigation into Chrysostom's life and work, the practice of spiritual marriage itself, the role of the theater in late antique city life, and the early history of Christianity. Though thoroughly grounded in the texts themselves and in the cultural history of late antiquity, this study breaks new ground with its focus on issues of rhetoric, sexuality, and power.
Leyerle argues that Chrysostom used images and tropes drawn from the theater to persuade religious men and women that spiritual marriage was wrong. In addition to her analysis of the significance of the rhetorical strategies used by Chrysostom, Leyerle gives a thorough discussion of the role of the theater in late antiquity, particularly in Antioch, one of the gems among late antique cities. She also discusses gender in the context of late antique religion, shedding new light on early Christian attitudes toward sexuality. Throughout Leyerle weaves an ongoing conversation with contemporary theory in film and gender studies that gives her study an important analytic dimension.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:06 -0400)

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