Perpetua: A Bride, A Martyr, A Passion
In Carthage of the 3rd century AD, Perpetua, the young daughter of a Roman nobleman and scholar, finds Jesus and enters a community of believers, promptly rejecting her father’s pagan gods. She has little experience: “I’d studied for so long,” she says, “Friendship, pain, joy, death, heroism, pathos. I’d never seen it in real life.” At a time when Christians are persecuted, her new beliefs are dangerous. Certain that her faith will soon be tested, Perpetua struggles with her own nature, with her sensuality and her desire for honor and pleasure.
Unfortunately, the reader knows what’s coming. Over and over again, Ms. Peterson tells us that Perpetua is going to be martyred. Lack of suspense, however, is not this book’s only problem. Perpetua is plagued with flagrant historical errors (i.e., stirrups did not come to the Mediterranean world until the 8th century, tea was brought west in the 16th). There is a whole dictionary of anachronistic concepts: university, feminism, brainwashing, projection of ideas… and a wearisome tendency to exhibit research by including unnecessary Latin words. The characters are predictable (all Christians angelic, all pagans bloodthirsty), the twists in the plot poorly constructed. Its one saving grace is Perpetua’s growing relationship with Jesus, but the obsessive quality of her yearning for martyrdom gives the novel an oppressive atmosphere. “The critics could not understand,” Ms. Peterson writes, “many whole congregations are at a loss to identify the good in a passion that pushes us to throw away life…” The author is right; many did not understand then, and they still don’t. It is a timely topic, particularly relevant since Perpetua is a historical character. But by presenting her argument in a one-sided fashion, by dismissing the views of other early Christian writers who condemned this “mania for self destruction,” Ms. Peterson succeeds only in validating fanaticism. Troublesome, considering the times in which we’re living.