During the persecution of the early church, the stories of the witness of the martyrs— later known as the Acts of the Martyrs–became a critical part of the church’s reading and devotional material. Why? This book argues that the reading of the Acts, and especially their visions, did more than just encourage the persecuted church; they reveal a nuanced view of God, the world, power, and powerlessness, death and life that at times subverts what may have been construed as normal or dominant by either church or the Greco-Roman society. This nuanced view may in fact reflect an underlying grass-roots or “popular theology” not readily available to the reader through other early church literature. The author refers to this act of upsetting, undercutting or reversing “things as they are” for the sake of things “as they should be” as the subversive dimensions of the visions of the martyrs.
The argument for the subversive dimensions of these visions also has implications for today’s church. While we are fascinated by the witness of these Christians—true and legendary alike—we also tend to dismiss it as models of extraordinary sacrifice which we are not all called to imitate, or as instruments used to support church authority. This book honors this witness as well as the challenges these visions may suggest for personal and ecclesial praxis in today’s world.