UNCG Research

Unveiling Eastern Orthodox Christianity in the Byzantine Empire, Dr. Derek Krueger [Faculty]

Posted on Monday, May 27th, 2013 by UNCG Research.

Repost from the Spring 2008 UNCG Research Magazine, “Orthodox thinking”

As far as the East is from the West: I have long been fascinated by the ancient and medieval cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean, what’s now known as Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Egypt. I realized that the study of Eastern Orthodox Christianity had been shortchanged and the field was wide open. The West had Augustine’s “Confessions” to explain ideas about the Christian self, but the East had no equivalent. I took the road less traveled. I am a historian of religion; I study how religions change and grow.

Interior mental furniture: Religious systems provide ways for people to understand themselves, to know who they are in relation to the divine, to each other, to society and to the state. The forms of Christianity practiced in Byzantium offered distinct ways of thinking about the self, of “knowing” who you were. Two important tools for self-understanding were the Bible and the ritual life of the church. I want to understand the role of religious life in arranging people’s interior mental furniture.

Biblical models: For centuries, the Bible has provided models for the Christian life. Byzantine Christians turned to heroes and saints of the Bible like David, who became a model of humility; Job, a model of endurance; Abraham, a model for hospitality; and so forth. Their stories helped define a code of ethics and a way for Christians to gauge their moral failings.

Time travel: Participating in Christian rituals like communion and marking the holidays of the Christian calendar put a person back in time as if they were reliving Christ’s last days on earth. Palm Sunday inserted the participant with Jesus at the gates of Jerusalem; Good Friday placed a person at the crucifixion. Remembering historical moments through ritual brought the events to life in the present and served as a cause for reflection. Ritual reenactment helped to define participants in relation to the biblical story.

All the senses: Orthodox Christianity engages all the senses. In the Byzantine
Church, worshipers heard hymns, saw icons, touched relics, smelled incense and tasted the Eucharistic bread and wine. My research goes past studying texts alone to bring in art, architecture and music, to understand how the environment for such rituals formed the entirety of the person. The liturgy transported Christians to heaven while on earth.

Visual experience plays heavily in my research. Scenes from the Bible covered the walls of Byzantine churches, surrounding people with the sacred stories. When Byzantine Christians approached the Eucharist, they sang the psalm “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” Some communion plates depicted the Last Supper, tying the ritual reenactment to the historical event.

A new hymn for Maundy Thursday introduced in the sixth century called on Christians not to be like Judas, but rather to identify with the thief who was crucified next to Christ. Byzantine ritual tended to encourage people to understand themselves as savable sinners.

Bringing it home: When I teach the history of Christianity, I am not teaching just facts, but a thought process. I want my students to learn ways of thinking about people who are different from themselves that are both critical and appreciative, to prepare them for the diverse world we live in. During the past fall, I visited medieval painted churches in Greece, Bulgaria and Turkey to think more about how religious spaces influenced worshipers to create a sense of their place in the world. I let my students in on what I am researching so they can be a part of it.

Dr. Derek Krueger, Joe Rosenthal Excellence Professor, Religious Studies

Dr. Derek Krueger has spent more than 20 years studying Eastern Orthodox Christianity. His current research centers on Christianity in the Byzantine Empire (324 AD to 1453 AD) and the role that ritual played in the formation of ideas about self. He is also working on other projects related to gender, sexuality and monastic friendship. Krueger joined the faculty in 1991 after completing his PhD at Princeton University. He heads the Department of Religious Studies and is on research assignment until fall 2008, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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