Elizabeth A. Castelli explores the central role of persecution in the early development of Christian ideas, institutions, and cultural forms and shows how the legacy of Christian martyrdom plays out in today's world. Martyrs are produced, Castelli suggests, not by the lived experience of particular historical individuals but by the stories that are later told about them. Using Maurice Halbwachs's theoretical framework of collective memory and drawing on a wide range of Christian sources, Castelli approaches the writings of early Christians and their public and ideologically potent accounts of martyrdom. In their words, the martyr's story becomes a "usable past," a "living tradition" for Christian communities, and an especially effective vehicle for transmitting ideas about gender, power, and sanctity.
In the wake of the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, modern "martyr cults" have emerged as the unlikely legacy of early Christian martyrdom. Focusing specifically on the martyr cult associated with one of the tragedy's victims, Castelli looks at how the Columbine story renders suffering redemptive and meaningful and the way in which "religion" has made a return to center stage in our culture, with the martyr as its most contentious yet riveting star.