Please join me in welcoming Lisa E. Betz to the blog today to chat about the faith history in the setting of her new mystery, Fountains and Secrets!
FOUNTAINS AND SECRETS by Lisa E. Betz
SERIES: Livia Aemilia Mysteries
GENRE: Inspirational Historical Fiction/Mystery
PUBLISHER: Redemption Press
RELEASE DATE: January 16, 2022
In bustling, affluent ancient Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius, status matters—yet some dare to ignore it. And some dare to defy social conventions.
Inspired by Jesus’s radical views, unconventional Livia Aemilia cares little about stuffy Roman dignity. She’d rather help others and solve crimes. But when her new husband forbids her from sleuthing, she continues in secret and soon learns that dishonesty doesn’t work well in a marriage.
His face and reputation scarred from an old betrayal, Memmius Avitus cares about justice. Although from a respected senatorial family, he takes pride in helping underprivileged clients win legal battles over more privileged opponents, to the annoyance of his peers.
When Avitus’s mentor is murdered, Avitus investigates undercover because he doesn’t want his inquisitive wife to get involved. His attempts to conceal the truth only cause more problems for his reputation—and his marriage. Eventually the couple forms a tenuous alliance, but when Avitus learns the mastermind behind the crimes is a ruthless longtime enemy, he fears for Livia’s safety and orders her to stop. His reluctance to explain why only infuriates her into reckless action.
Fountains and Secrets, book 2 in the Livia Aemilia Mysteries, is quirky, fast paced, and clever, showing readers that trust and honesty are more important than winning the battle of the wills.
countercultural faith in the early church
by Lisa E. Betz, author of Fountains and Secrets
When we think of early church history, we commonly think of the persecution that Christians suffered under various Roman emperors, which forced the church underground for several centuries. However, my novels (Livia Aemilia Mysteries) are set in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius (predecessor of Nero), before the Roman government took notice of Christianity.
Does that mean my characters had an easy time following Jesus and his teachings? No, because the way of life Jesus modeled ran counter to the accepted values of Roman society, and one of the most significant countercultural attitudes my characters face is Jesus’s clash with the concept of honor.
Like many ancient cultures, the Jews and Romans viewed life from a lens of honor/shame instead of right/wrong. In an honor/shame culture, people choose “right” behavior based on what society expects of them rather than on what their inner conscience says is good or bad. According to the Roman mindset, doing what was right involved acting in ways that brought honor to you and your group (family, tribe, nation) or that would avoid bringing shame to the group.
Honor vs. Humility
Since the Romans saw the world through an honor/shame lens, it’s not surprising that one of their most exalted virtues was dignitas. This term encompassed a whole list of concepts including honor, status, reputation, wealth, personal influence, physical appearance, and standing among one’s peers. A Roman gentleman took his dignitas very seriously, to the point that he would sue people for defamation if he felt his dignitas had been attacked.
According to this mindset, a person would enhance their personal dignitas by associating with those of higher status, wealth, or reputation, and lose dignitas when associating with those of lesser status, wealth, or reputation.
Contrast the concept of dignitas to the virtues Jesus spoke about. Here are three quick examples:
- Jesus told his followers to take the lowest seat at a banquet rather than jockey for position and take the highest one.
- Jesus welcomed the nobodies: little children, beggars, lepers, disreputable women. These are social classes a person concerned only for honor would avoid.
- In the beatitudes and elsewhere, Jesus praised qualities like humility, meekness, mercy, and being persecuted. These run directly counter to the goals of a person who strives to gain honor and prestige.
It wasn’t only the Romans who placed a high value on honor. Jesus frequently criticized the Jewish religious leaders for sharing this attitude of striving after personal prestige and status instead of adopting an attitude of humility before God and mercy for the poor and rejected.
Christians embraced a different mindset
The early Christians stood out because they followed Jesus’s example of ministering to the nobodies in a society that didn’t value or understand those actions. Their unconventional behavior became even more radical when they embraced the concept that all are equal in the sight of God. As Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28 (NIV)
This was a mind-blowing concept to Romans and Jews alike, and I’m sure most early Christians found it difficult to live out, especially in a household where masters and slaves both became Christ-followers. Believers had to work out the nuances of how people could be equal in the sight of God yet have different degrees of authority.
And then consider that they lived in a world saturated with images, customs, and holidays based on honoring the pantheon of Roman deities—which a Christian would now see as idols. Statues in public places, frescoes in the house, and even the coins in their hand bore images of the gods, and responsible citizens were expected to honor those gods through private and public ceremonies. Where did harmless customs stop and worship to idols begin? Believers had to figure out how to be “in the world but not of the world.”
These are just a few examples of the challenges early Christian faced, regardless of whether the local government was actively persecuting them or not.
The characters in my Livia Aemilia Mysteries struggle with these and other issues. They must choose when to bow to society’s expectations and when to take a stand and act in ways that may result in ridicule or rejection. They don’t always get it right, but they do their best, and learn from their mistakes.
Their struggles are relevant today
Although my novels are set in an ancient society that differs in many ways from our modern world, the basic struggles my characters face are similar to the ones you and I face.
We live in an image-based, success-driven, media saturated society. We are constantly bombarded by messages and images that tell us how to look, how to act, and what success looks like. Our society doesn’t worship these images with incense and dead sheep, instead we give our time, attention, and money to attaining them.
The upside-down world of Jesus doesn’t fit our modern society any better than it did in the first century. Like my characters, we too must choose to be unconventional, daring to look like misfits in a world that doesn’t understand our values and ridicules us for holding to them.
PS: If you want to learn more about honor/shame culture and other factors that color how we understand scripture, I recommend the book Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien.
An engineer-turned-mystery-writer, Lisa E. Betz infuses her novels with authentic characters who thrive on solving tricky problems. Her debut novel, Death and a Crocodile, won several awards, including Golden Scroll Novel of the Year (2021). Her second mystery, Fountains and Secrets, released in January.
Lisa combines her love of research with her quirky imagination to bring the world of the early church to life. She and her husband reside outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with Scallywag, their rambunctious cat—the inspiration for Nemesis, resident mischief maker in the Livia Aemilia Mysteries. Lisa directs church dramas, eats too much chocolate, and experiments with ancient Roman recipes. Visit her at www.lisaebetz.com.
Lisa E. Betz is offering a print copy of Fountains and Secrets to one of my readers! (US only. Void where prohibited by law or logistics.) This giveaway is subject to Reading Is My SuperPower’s giveaway policies which can be found here. Enter via the Rafflecopter form below.
What about you? What makes you want to read Fountains and Secrets by Lisa E. Betz?