Andrea Sterk

title.none: Penn, Kissing Christians (Andrea Sterk)

identifier.other: baj9928.0606.019 06.06.19

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Andrea Sterk, University of Florida,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Penn, Michael Philip. Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church. Divinations: Reading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. 200. $42.50 0-8122-3880-X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.06.19

Penn, Michael Philip. Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church. Divinations: Reading Late Ancient Religion. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. Pp. 200. $42.50 0-8122-3880-X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Andrea Sterk
University of Florida

Though a nearly ubiquitous practice in the early Christian era, the ritual kiss has received very little attention outside the study of liturgics. In Kissing Christians Michael Penn attempts to bring kissing out of its liturgical ghetto and into the mainstream of early Christian studies. In his introduction, Penn laments the lack of theoretically informed scholarship in this field relative to its medieval counterpart; it is hard to find anything analogous to Caroline Bynum's Holy Feast, Holy Fast for the first five centuries. (4) His own work clearly moves in this direction, employing a range of interdisciplinary and theoretical approaches in his examination of the ritual kiss in Late Antiquity. The playful title and an opening chapter called "Kissing Basics" should not dissuade the wary reader. This is a serious, well-researched as well as theoretically engaged study of an important early Christian ritual.

At the beginning of each chapter Penn introduces the issues he plans to address, the distinctive aspects of his approach, and the theoretical work on which he will draw for his analysis. The sources for his research in Chapter 1 are over 1000 non-Christian, i.e. pagan and Jewish, references to the kiss or kissing in literature and art of the ancient world. Penn emphasizes the diversity of usages but also arrives at certain generalizations about the ancient kiss. Least surprising, perhaps, is the observation that the largest percentage of non-Christian references concern kisses between lovers. As Penn later explains, this prompted early Christian efforts to de-eroticize the kiss, for example, by emphasizing its familial significance. Other pagan usages include the kiss of greeting, and kisses associated with reunion, celebration, agreement, and submission to rulers. Penn also notes the kiss's use as a form of persuasion, an ancient form of "kissing up" (14), and compares ancient kissing of potential voters with the modern campaign phenomenon of "kissing babies". (15) Kissing, then, was often a public gesture. The connection of kissing with leadership and election, he suggests, may have influenced Christian kissing rites in ordination and consecration. Indeed Penn's emphasis on non-Christian uses of the kiss in a variety of everyday practices serves to highlight the ways in which early Christians developed "strategies of distinction" in their notion and practice of the ritual kiss. (17) Here he introduces Catherine Bell's work on processes of ritualization which has influenced Penn's own approach to kissing. The rest of this chapter briefly surveys the history of the ritual kiss in Christian sources from its earliest uses in the Pauline epistles to its manifold functions in the fourth and fifth centuries.

Building on the work of anthropologist Mary Douglas and social psychologist Michael Hogg, Chapter 2 explores early Christian uses of the kiss as an instrument of "group cohesion". New Testament and patristic scholars have devoted significant attention to the Greco- Roman family in recent years, exploring the ways in which early Christians adopted the contemporary language of family and kinship to define Christian community. Many studies have suggested the Christian use of the paterfamilias as a model of hierarchy within the family structure. While drawing from these works, Penn moves beyond the rhetoric of kinship to examine the performative function of the kiss in early Christian familial construction. The ritual kiss temporarily erased familial distinctions as slaves became kissable members of a newly constituted Christian family. A range of early Christian sources, both orthodox and "gnostic", show how an ancient notion of the kiss as a physical exchange of souls or spirits became a form of spiritual exchange between early Christians. A distinctive feature of early Christian kissing for which there was no significant Greco-Roman analog was its link with forgiveness. This connection, which develops into the well-known "kiss of peace" in later centuries, was absent from the earliest Christian sources. Starting with Tertullian, however, it was often used to promote concord within the Christian community, an emphasis that corresponded with liturgical developments as the kiss was increasingly associated with the Eucharist. Early Christian leaders used the kiss as a tool of reconciliation and "a form of conflict management". (49) Its physical enactment, Penn argues, transformed abstract concepts of family, spirit, and reconciliation into embodied actions. Combining rhetorical analysis with the insights of performance studies, he shows how the ritual kiss helped to shape Christian identity and reinforce unity.

The appropriation of Greco-Roman cultural analogs also produced tensions as the early Christian movement grew in size and influence. While Chapter 2 examines the kiss as a force of group cohesion, Chapter 3 analyzes "the exclusive kiss", a tool of differentiation distinguishing "us" from "them", the in-group from the out-group. Here Penn incorporates the insights of Pierre Bourdieu and Jonathan Z. Smith regarding the inevitable connection of identity with difference and the use of the other for defining the self. Based largely on fourth and fifth century patristic sources, Penn exposes the ways in which late antique Christians used the kiss to exclude pagans and to differentiate themselves from Jews who, according to Ambrose, did not even have a kiss, indeed cannot kiss. (61) More threatening to Christian identity by the late fourth century, however, were rival Christian communities, i.e. heretics. Focusing on the Origenist and Donatist controversies, Penn documents the ways in which rival parties used the kiss to distinguish themselves from other Christians and hence to define orthodoxy. Augustine contrasted Catholic Christians, who possessed the innocent "kiss of doves", with the heretical Donatists, who had only the divisive "kiss of ravens". (69) Despite such categories of exclusion, however, new religious movements needed converts, so fluidity persisted. Although catechumens were prohibited from exchanging the kiss, the kiss also served as a "rite of passage" after baptism and before the first Eucharist when the whole congregation welcomed the neophyte with a kiss. In this way the kiss was transformed from a ritual of exclusion to a ritual of inclusion. Other subsections of this chapter trace the distinctive functions of Christian kissing in relation to confessors, martyrs, and relics; the strong shift away from cross-gendered kissing, which apparently posed little problem in the first to third centuries; and the increasing prohibitions on clergy and laity kissing members of the others' rank serving to further separate the two orders. The exclusionary kiss was a political matter, Penn concludes, "intimately tied to struggles of power". (90)

Since people frequently traversed the categories imposed by social boundaries like the ritual kiss, Chapter 4 focuses on the kiss's function as a metaphor for such border crossings. Surveying early Christian references to inappropriate kisses--which transgress purity, violate social or sexual boundaries, or re-enact Judas's betrayal-- Penn examines the ways in which Christian leaders "used the threat of transgressive kissing as a way to help solidify social boundaries". (92) Their writings serve both to dissuade such promiscuous behavior and to strengthen the categories or distinctions that transgressive kissing violates. In this chapter the value of Penn's careful analysis of non-Christian kissing references is particularly clear. He adroitly dispels persistent scholarly speculation regarding Greco- Roman kissing practices and the Christian ritual kiss. Though regularly described in the secondary literature as a cause of pagan slander and gossip against Christians, Penn finds not a single mention of the ritual kiss in non-Christian sources and widespread misrepresentation of pagan kissing practices. Thus, persistent "rumors of rumors" have resulted from the isolation of Christian ritual from its broader Greco-Roman cultural context. (104-105)

Summarizing his main arguments, Penn affirms that "in every case, as a marker of social boundaries, the ritual kiss became an important tool in the formation and manipulation of Christian identity." (120) If this book is about the ways in which the ritual kiss both created and crossed a variety of social boundaries in the early Christian era, Penn's work itself is an exercise in crossing scholarly boundaries. Indeed he concludes with a review of his methodology emphasizing his efforts to apply a range of social-scientific strategies and critical theory to his study of ancient liturgical texts. He also suggests the value of this approach for the study of other early Christian rituals such as exorcism and footwashing. Like his mentor, Elizabeth Clark, Penn has endeavored to use theoretical approaches to illumine the study of early Christian texts, and he calls other scholars to follow suit. Perhaps most valuable is his use of Bell's theory of ritualization as "strategic differentiation", which provides a model for appreciating how early Christian leaders adopted a common Greco- Roman gesture yet simultaneously made the gesture distinctively Christian. While the insights of ritual and performance theory have sensitized Penn to the importance of everyday gestures as much as ritual, the strength of his study is its analysis of a wealth of references to diverse Greco-Roman kissing practices leading to a nuanced, contextualized representation of the Christian liturgical kiss.

Especially since this study seeks to integrate social-scientific theories and models, supplementary tables and a more complete list of sources would have been helpful. The bibliography lists only Christian sources. Ample documentation is supplied in the end notes, but repeated yet slightly varied references in different chapters to "over 1000 Jewish and pagan references to kissing" or "almost 1000 pagan references to kissing" are impressive but vague. An appendix displaying the various categories of non-Christian kissing references might have given readers more confidence in his generalizations. Minor quibbles aside, however, Michael Penn has succeeded admirably in supporting his case for the role of the ritual kiss as a distinctive marker of Christian identity in the late ancient church. Whether this work has the broader effect of bringing together diverse scholars and fields of study as Penn hopes (e.g., cultural and ritual theory with liturgical history), remains to be seen; meanwhile Kissing Christians has broken new ground greatly enriching our understanding of this important Christian liturgical ritual and community-forming practice.