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Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 6.2 (2006) 272-275

Reviewed by
L. Edward Phillips
The Divinity School, Duke University
Kissing Christians: Ritual and Community in the Late Ancient Church. By Michael Philip Penn. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 186 pp. $42.50

Michael Philip Penn's Kissing Christians provides a scholarly yet readable treatment of the early Christian ritual kiss, a topic that, Penn rightly claims, has not received the sustained attention it deserves. Indeed, a bibliography of previous book-length monographs on the topic would not take up half of a printed page. In the interest of full disclosure, the most recent entry in this bibliography would be my own small book, The Ritual Kiss in Early Christian Worship (1996), a work that Penn graciously engages in his own discussion of the kiss. The publication of Penn's monograph is, for me, a cause for rejoicing. [End Page 272]

Penn's approach is fresh in three ways. First, he has developed a database "of over a thousand ancient references to kissing" (6) to establish the larger Greco-Roman cultural uses of the kiss and kissing terminology. This has enabled him to correct the more limited researches of previous scholars. Second, Penn is the first to employ critical theory and social science methodologies for analyzing the historical material. And, third, whereas previous research has often become mired in speculations about the origin of the kiss and its subsequent location in Christian liturgy, Penn is more interested in examining the practice after it had become well established, but still continued to be influenced by Greco-Roman cultural interpretations of kissing.

Chapter 1, "Kissing Basics," lays the groundwork for the study by locating the Christian kiss within the larger cultural setting, and by describing its development from the first through the fifth centuries of the Common Era. The Greco-Roman kiss had numerous, and often overlapping, meanings: erotic passion, family boundaries, hierarchical status, and public greetings, to list the more common. It rarely, however, had an explicitly religious meaning. On the other hand, Christians more frequently describe a kiss that is explicitly religious and shared among all the believers in their religious group. Penn proposes that Christian writers tried to control the meanings of their religious kisses by banning some culturally available interpretations (erotic, for example), while accepting others (such as the familial).

In chapter 2, "The Kiss That Binds," Penn uses methods of social psychologist Michael Hogg and anthropologist Mary Douglas to show how the kiss was a ritual for producing the church as a cohesive group "where members are attracted not to individual personality traits but to conformity with a set of group prototypes or group norms" (28). To do this he investigates the cultural meanings of the kiss that Christians accepted even while reinterpreting them. For example, in classical literature the familial kiss was both a right and an expectation, but limited to blood relationship or marriage. Christians, who at least from the time of Paul had been referring to each other as "brothers and sisters," kissed each other to "produce a new kind of family, a community formed not by biological relationship but by a kinship of faith" (37). This was an "idealized family" that gave Christian a model for how to behave toward each other as it also reinforced group unity.

In chapter 3, "Difference and Distinction," Penn shows how the kiss not only defined who was "in" the Christian social body, but who was outside it. As predicted by the sociological theory of difference developed by Jonathan Z. Smith, Penn finds that the early Christians were much more concerned with distinguishing their kisses from those "most like" them (Jews and heretics), than those "not like" them (pagans). Likewise, the kiss ritually constructs the status of catechumens by excluding them until they were baptized ("becoming like" them), and it delineated various hierarchical differences within the social body: the honoring of martyrs and confessors; the (eventual) segregation of men and women, and, finally...


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