A few years ago, my wife and I were looking for a book on the history of Christianity to help us in homeschooling our teenaged son. What made this a bit challenging is that my wife is a Protestant, and I had recently become an Orthodox Christian, so we wanted a book that treated our respective traditions objectively and with respect.
My wife came home from a conference sponsored by the Association of Christian Schools International with a copy of "The Story of Christianity." Since I'd seen textbooks in Protestant Christian schools with a not-so-subtle anti-Catholic bias, and that treated the Orthodox as virtually non-existent, I viewed this title with suspicion.
The first thing that began to set me at ease was that it had been written by two scholars, one Roman Catholic and the other Protestant. I figured that they would at least show respect for each other's traditions, which I quickly found to be true.
Next, I began taking a close look at the opening chapters dealing with early Church history, covering "The Roots of Christianity" (starting in the Old Testament) and going to "The Conversion of Europe" (including the Great Schism of 1054). What I found was an objective, fair treatment of the early days in both the East and the West, when there was general agreement throughout the Church on orthodoxy, as well as the tragic differences that developed due to cultural problems (such as language differences and poor communication, political shifts (such as moving the capital from Rome to what became known as Constantinople), and differences of opinion on the role of the papacy. With the final split in 1054, any hope of reconciliation ended with the Crusades from the West and the sack of Constantinople in 1204.
From this point on, the book takes on a spirit of bi-partisanship as it develops the history of Christianity in the West, giving a scant two pages per chapter to the Eastern Orthodox, covering the next 1000 years. While this beautiful volume might mainly be of interest to readers from the West, with its emphasis on the development of the Catholic Church and the many denominations of Protestantism, through the shortcoming of omission, many readers may be left with the impression that--since Eastern Orthodox worship is virtually unchanged in 1700 years--not much else has gone on in the East either.
However, if one pays attention to the captions and sidebars, the reader discovers tidbits about the East that deserve greater treatment than it gets here. One caption on "An Orthodox View of the Trinity" mentions the theological debate on the Trinity, which surrounds the statement in the Nicene Creed about the Holy Spirit proceeding from the Father, but the text fails to amplify the controversy surrounding the filioque ("and the Son") added by the West, without the approval of an Ecumenical Council.
One also learns from other captions that "throughout the medieval period, the standard of education was far higher in Constantinople than in the West," or "for 1000 years Constantinople had been the home of the finest Greek scholars." If the Renaissance and Reformation get dozens of pages, why not the glorious Orthodox Byzantine Empire, the longest lasting empire in history? Why not spend more pages on the accomplishments of those fine Greek scholars?
Another caption states, "In the early 1700s missionaries from the Russian Orthodox church became active through the harsh region of Siberia," telling further how these efforts extended to Alaska in 1794 and "all the way down to San Francisco." This is an amazing missionary story that has yet to be read by most Westerners!
Brief mention is also made of Peter the Great's efforts to Westernize Russia, and in the process he almost dismantled the Russian Orthodox Church, the very institution that brought unity to this great, and vast, nation.
I'm also afraid that Western readers will be left with the impression that Orthodox Christians remain in the East, overlooking a growing Orthodox presence in the Western hemisphere, beginning with immigrant groups from Eastern Europe, as well as Arab Christians, but now attracting Westerners (like me) who have discovered the rich tradition of spirituality and worship within Orthodoxy.
The omissions in this book are too numerous to mention in detail, but don't get me wrong, I like this book! It's beautifully layed out, in the style of Dorling Kindersly's popular Eyewitness books, with colorful prints, drawings, maps and photographs on every page. In my opinion, this makes this volume superior to most Christian history textbooks. Also, I do think it treats all three major traditions respectfully, just not equally or proportionately.
I would still recommend that this book be in every Christian home (yes, even Orthodox), as it helps us to understand one another better. It would be attractive on a coffee table, and it is conducive to browsing. It would also be a welcome addition to church and school libraries...