Saturday, August 13, 2011

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch - Review

For any person seeking to gain understanding about how Christianity developed, its influences on world culture, the blessings it has distributed, and the evils that have been propagated in its name, MacCulloch's huge book, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years,  must stand as a primary source. By exhaustively examining the roots, strands, and strains of Christian faith over a three millennium period and suggesting that the first three millennia are only the beginning, he sheds light and understanding on how the faithful and searchers alike may interpret the life of Jesus, the development of The Church, the words of the Bible, and the deaths over doctrinal differences of literally hundreds of millions of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others. Often a struggle to work through, the book is, nevertheless, an invaluable tool in examining the role of Christianity in the world and in the individual's approach to it. This is a serious book for serious readers, and, like the Bible, contains extensive grist for disagreement and conflict among those who choose to encounter it.

I approached this book, at least partly, from an interest in trying to understand how the texts which are now accepted as the content for the body of faith leading Christians, the New Testament, were selected while others, apparently of equal authority were left out of what became The Bible. Learned some of the politics involved as church fathers from all over the Christian world gathered together at the Synod of Hippo in 393 CE to put together what pretty much looks like the generally accepted Bible of today, but that wasn't exactly agreed to until the council of Trent more than 1000 years later. Meanwhile, some churches include books that others exclude, so it's just as complicated and subject to human error as I suspected. What reading MacCulloch developed for me, however, is a much more comprehensive view of a broader, deeper, and larger history than I previously understood had existed.

One distressing insight I gained in working through this book involved the massive loss of life surrounding differences concerning who or what Jesus was. Considering western disregard for the struggle between Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam and the warfare this causes, it's interesting we have so little knowledge of the (perhaps) millions of lives lost as Christians battled over whether Jesus was God himself, or two in one, or three in one. This question has not yet been settle by people calling themselves Christians after over 2000 years of often violent discussion and schisms within the Church. Similarly, the role of the Bible, individual interpretation of God's word, the nature of the priesthood, questions of authority, and hundreds of other differences separate Christians throughout the world. At least, in most of the western world, we're no longer burning “witches,” stretching heretics on the rack, or fighting religious wars over matters of doctrine, although there was plenty of that to go around for 1500 or so years.

For many of us who grew up in the western world, the Christian world growing out of the Gospel being spread to Rome and thence throughout Europe, the Protestant Reformation, and the founding of a variety of churches separate from the one in Rome is largely the story of Christianity. I was vaguely aware of the Orthodox Church centered first in Constantinople, but had no idea of its vast importance in keeping Christianity alive and spreading it east as far as India and China or south in Africa from about the fourth century until well into medieval times. Indeed, the eastern church under a variety of patriarchs and empires spread the Gospel to millions of people while Europe was struggling to recover for the 1000 years after the fall of Rome. It was only as Islam began its highly successful spread that the eastern Church declined and Rome, supporting a series of European kings and emperors in a highly politicized environment began to reassert a Christianity many of us find recognizable. During the hundred of pages in MacCulloch where he describes the spread, reach, and majesty of the eastern church, I often felt intimidated enough by the names of people and places I didn't recognize to want to break off and leap to more familiar ground, but hanging in with this part of his book helped me gain a broader and more comprehensive perspective.

Diarmaid MacCulloch

Once on more recognizable ground with the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation, the Spanish Inquisition, Henry VIII, Luther, Calvin, Erasmus, and all the dozens of other figures influential in developing Christian ideas now flowing about, I found MacCulloch helpful in clarifying ideas that had been run past me before, but rarely in such lucid and thought provoking a fashion. In some areas, where I had some knowledge, I found his discussion a little on the superficial side, so I suspect that in covering nearly 3000 years of history he slights some areas a specialist might wish to be further expanded. Scholars might find this book wanting, but those seeking an excellent and readable general history will more than get their money's worth. MacCulloch's writing flows easily and there's always, or at least usually, a twinkle of the eye and a hint of wry, forgiving irony in his voice. While scholarly, the book is never pedantic.

As we neared the present, I found MacCulloch to be extremely interesting as he discussed the development of Pentecostal and charismatic churches in terms of their ways of expressing religious feeling within the context of new American freedoms and resistance to authority. On the other hand, he seemed to me to spend perhaps too much time discussing issues affecting the Anglican confession, but perhaps this is forgivable, as he's an Anglican cleric as well as an historian. His post World War II material is interesting, but perhaps not sufficiently leavened with the yeast of time. He discusses changes in American religious practice and belief in an appropriately gingerly fashion, as we don't yet know the long term effects the Evangelical churches and fundamentalism will have on either society of Christianity. Regardless of flaws the book might have, it presents a grand overview of the development of Christianity and its influence on the world.

A Note on reading this book on Kindle: In hard cover, Christianity: The First 3,000 Years is 1184 pages long including extensive notes, a large bibliography, and an abridged index. The complete index can be found on line, all 72 pages in a three column format and, because it's keyed to page numbers, unusable in the Kindle version. I chose to purchase this book in the Kindle version because of its size and weight, knowing, after my experience with the Autobiography of Mark Twain I wouldn't be able to hold it in my aging hands for long. It would simply prove to be too heavy. Reading it in Kindle proved to be a pleasure, but studying it would not have. I like to make frequent references to the Notes in large, scholarly books. While this might be possible in Kindle, it's not easy. Jumping back and forth from place to place is cumbersome at best. Also, with progress made only shown in terms of a percentage, not the usual number range, it proved extremely difficult to return to the spot I had left. Two other matters were also of concern to me. First, the maps were unreadable. They are too faint on the Kindle to be useful. Second, this book is lavishly illustrated in lively color plates. None of these are included in the Kindle edition, especially since Kindle does not, yet, manage color. I wonder if the iPad Kindle app would have allowed me to see the pictures. I plan to try to view the six episode television program made from this book to fill in the visual cues and further complete my understanding. Otherwise, I found reading this book to be most useful.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Dermaid MacCulloch is published by Penguin Books and is available at all the usual sources in all formats. I paid for it.